Campus Society Article: What it’s like caring for a terminally ill parent when you’re at university.

I remember the day Mum stopped being able to walk. I had to help her from her bed to her chair and wheel her to the bathroom. She could still wash herself at that point and once she’d finished I wheeled her back, found her medication and fixed her some lunch. I remember it so clearly because it was the last time I had some quality time alone with her.

I didn’t know that I was a carer until I’d been caring for over a year. Mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer during my second term of university. She died at the start of my final year.  I knew that none of my friends had a terminally ill parent, but that was about as far as my thinking went. It was only when I met someone from the charity York Carers who started asking me questions like “Do you worry about your Mum when you’re in lectures?” that I began to realise how different my student life was compared to my peers.

I didn’t think I was a carer because I still lived at university.  I hadn’t realised that a lot of things I did were things that my friends didn’t do. Like going home more a lot more often and checking in on my family every day. When going home, most of my friends would be waited on hand and foot, but even though I did still take my washing home (so much cheaper than on campus), I normally did it myself, and often ended up cleaning and cooking a fair bit too. I also didn’t appreciate the toll of emotionally supporting my family and worrying about not just Mum, but also about my Dad and brothers and how they were coping.

My caring responsibilities started slowly and increased steadily by the time Mum died, I hardly realised how far my life had shifted from that of a normal student. To begin with, it was just a matter of visiting home more often to see her. But over the course of Mum’s illness I’ve had to do many more things including visiting her in hospital, helping her drink, fetching her medication, and moving her around the house.

When she was in hospital, I occasionally missed lectures and in my second year I had to postpone my summer exam to give me enough time to catch up on all the work. I’m the eldest of three children, and the only girl, so I definitely felt some responsibility for managing the house while Dad was in hospital, transporting Mum’s family, or working.

Perhaps the biggest area of my uni life being a carer impacted was my social life. I could never commit to anything too far in advance for fear of letting people down and when I was at uni I often spent time catching up on work instead of being out with my friends. To begin with my friends were amazing. I lived in halls and we’d often crash each other’s rooms. I remember one friend arriving in my room with chocolate fingers and a film one night when I was having a particularly bad day. But in second year, as we moved out of halls and I had to go home more often, it became harder to keep those friendships up. The more time I spent at home or in hospital, the more distant I felt from uni and my friends there. I drifted from them as their lives moved on and mine stayed stuck in cancer-land. It wasn’t their fault, and whenever I do contact them or see them around they’re really supportive and still invite me to things. It’s just how it was.

Other young adult carers have shared similar experiences. Through the power of Twitter, I found two other carers with stories a bit like mine. Maariyah, a first year student at the University of Portsmouth, has been caring for her Mum for years and like me didn’t realise she was a carer for a long time, “I didn’t actually realise I was a carer until I got older and realised my role” she told me. Jane, a master’s student, has been caring for her sister for most of her life and now cares for both of her parents, too. Both Maariyah and Jane live at home and travel into university for their lectures, which in itself gives them a very different university experience from their friends, but one I instantly
recognised.

Bethany, a first year student at the University of Bedfordshire, has cared for her Mum from a young age. She lives at uni too but, like I did, travels home often.

Both Jane and Bethany mentioned how difficult it could be to socialise. Having less time to see their friends might be an obvious one, but they also spoke about not wanting to cancel plans at short notice, letting their friends down, and Bethany said “because  of my caring role I don’t like to go out much and haven’t found the confidence to have a social life at uni.”

Thankfully, all three carers receive support from their local carers organisations and Jane is also supported by her personal tutor and a lecturer. Talking about her lecturer she says “she’s been a star, I honestly believe that without her I would’ve definitely dropped out of uni. She’s been my rock throughout the last few years, she’s always there for me both academically and personally.” These supports are lifelines. Helping carers to manage the various strains on their time and providing them with occasional light relief. I can relate to this, I’ve been incredibly well supported by both my academic supervisor and my college welfare team who have constantly gone out of their way to help me out. Once I discovered I was a carer and found York Carers, I began to receive support from them too which has been invaluable.

It is estimated that there are 290,369 carers in the UK aged 16-24 but the true number is unknown because so many young adult carers may not even recognise themselves to have a caring role. Out of those who identify themselves as a young adult carer, 25% won’t tell their college or university about their caring role. It isn’t quite clear why but often it can be because they don’t know the support that could be available to them, or they are worried about the reaction of their tutors. Under the Care Act, 2014, every carer is entitled to support to help them to carry on with their life. This includes the right for every carer to receive a carer’s assessment, assessing the needs of themselves and their family to make sure that they receive the support they deserve, such as help with the caring itself, assistance with travel costs, or enabling the carer to have some time away from their caring role so that they can do something else for a while.

Despite the difficulties caring can throw up, most of us wouldn’t want our responsibilities taken away. I got a sense of pride from caring, I love my families, and would rather care for them myself than have a relative stranger do it. Being a carer, I learned a lot. I learned about the issues facing a person with limited mobility, both in their house and when trying to get out and about. I discovered how non-wheelchair-friendly many places are and found a new appreciation for anyone wheelchair-bound. I learned how to support a disabled person around their home – and about the various gadgets available to help with that. I also learned things about myself, mainly that I’m more resilient than I ever thought possible.

Every carer needs support. There’s no reason that being a carer should stop you from attending university or college, if you want to. If you think you might be entitled to carer support, go to carers.org to find your nearest carers centre.

This article originally appeared on Dorms, the online magazine of Campus Society, check it out here.

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